LIVE: Sweet Baboo / Clémentine March - Birmingham Sunflower Lounge, 24/03/2023 1

LIVE: Sweet Baboo / Clémentine March – Birmingham Sunflower Lounge, 24/03/2023

It’s been nearly eight years since Stephen Black brought a Sweet Baboo show to Birmingham; last time around it was a full band affair in support of his then new album The Boombox Ballads. Tonight, Black returns solo to the brilliant and intimate The Sunflower Lounge, with just a tape machine, an acoustic guitar, a flute and a vintage wind synthesiser for company.

Well, that’s not strictly true, as he has also brought along London-based French artist Clémentine March to the second City, as he has for the previous 19 dates of this 21 date tour. March too is solo, backing herself on keyboards and guitar (not at the same time) and the sometime member of Snapped Ankles produces a more laid back, Stereolab-flavoured sound when out on her own. Like tonight’s headliner, she is more than capable of punctuating her excellent set with a few anecdotes, such as the time when she found she was sharing her hotel with a number of Crufts contestants on a previous sojourn to Birmingham. Her recent digital EP My Empty Town is superb, one of the highlights tonight being a version of its track ‘Silence’ (which March describes as a “sad banger”).

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Clémentine March

Shortly after Clémentine March closes her charming set with the title track of her 2019 album Le Continent, Black takes to the stage and begins with a stripped down, low-key version of his 2013 favourite ‘Let’s Go Swimming Wild’. A debate with the audience on whether Sweet Baboo has actually played this venue before then takes place, a solitary crowd member claiming to have been at the show that may or may not have taken place!

Three songs in and Black explains that he brought his tape machine along to make up for the lack of band, using it to supply the Bossanova flavour of his new album ‘The Wreckage’’s opening track ‘Hopeless’, on which Black also provides a flute solo, explaining “I love playing the flute, but I can’t do it at home because the dog goes absolutely mental!”. It brings another level to the performance and demonstrates that the man seems to be able to turn his hand to playing anything (he was even drafted in to cover bass at short notice on the last Teenage Fanclub tour and indeed provided a trumpet break at that last Birmingham Sweet Baboo show!)

From the last album, Wild Imagination, comes the touching ‘Clear Blue Skies’, about Black and his son “blasting into space”, though he does explain that “we haven’t done it yet though!”. There’s a story about him being locked in his own van before that 2015 show, and a brilliant ‘Tonight You Are A Tiger’ from The Boombox Ballads to keep the context. There’s a couple more acoustic tracks before the tape machine comes back into its own, though he has to fast forward through a song to get to the desired track (!), the remarkable ‘Pink Rainbow’ on which he plays, wait for it…a Yamaha WX7 wind synthesiser, which turns out to be the instrument that provides the retro-futuristic sound on the track. It sounds stunning and turns out to be worth the wait to re-tune the temperamental instrument after a false start.

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Sweet Baboo

There’s a low-key run through the wonderful ‘If I Died…’ which features the unforgettable lyric “Daniel Johnston has written hundreds of great tunes / And I’ve got six / So I guess there’s some catching up to do”. Black’s self-deprecating humour and charm adds a lot of warmth to the show, but doesn’t deflect from the fact that he is an extraordinarily talented songwriter and performer, and definitely one of the greatest lyricists of his generation. Try listening to Wild Imagination’s title track for proof (not performed tonight) or maybe ‘Sometimes’, which is performed tonight, as a kind of hybrid acoustic and tape-driven number featuring some nifty fast forward / rewind action to bring in the band section in the middle!

It’s a heartwarming show which couples plenty of crowd interaction between songs with rapt attention during them, ‘Motorhome’ from 2013’s Motorhome Songs is greeted warmly as is ‘Cate’s Song’, resurrected from Ships for this tour with the offer from Black to “stop me in between verses if you want me to explain anything”!

To end the night, we’re back to the present day and ‘The Worry’ from the new record, and a reminder that Sweet Baboo is still very much at the top of his game. The crowd reaction will hopefully inspire him to be back in Birmingham before too long.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.